Saturday, August 18, 2007

Biology Is Not Destiny

I just sent a letter to the Philadelphia City Paper in response to a pro-execution opinion column. Here it is:

Michael Washburn's Slant misrepresents the position of death penalty opponents on a number of levels.

First, he seems oblivious to the materialist understanding of racism. This views racism as not fundamentally a problem of bad attitudes, but of structural inequalities that not only have disparate impacts on "whites" and "people of color," but also serve to continually reproduce discriminatory practices — sometimes consciously racist, sometimes inadvertently so — that in turn perpetuate the material inequalities.

Washburn appeals to tradition by noting the prevalence of retribution as a theme in many cultures. He conveniently neglects that this often takes the form of cross-generational retribution, resulting in endless cycles of revenge. Moral rightness can't be decided by the mere prevalence of a custom. After all, racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance are all prevalent across many cultures too.

Washburn also assumes that calling the death penalty racist implies that only "people of color" are executed. This is an absurd dichotomy; a disparate impact doesn't have to be 100% to be real. He also ignores the fact that simulated trials have found that white juries given identical information are more likely to sentence a "black" person to death than a "white" for the same crime. Disparate impact is about how people in different color castes are treated for the same actions, not about how they commit crimes at different rates — something that's hard to tell since racial bias also acts on the level of police and prosecutorial conduct.

Apparently just for kicks, Washburn throws in a slander against Mumia Abu Jamal, claiming he initially tried to defend the shooting of Daniel Faulkner on political grounds. On the contrary, this was the prosecution's claim; Mumia has always denied shooting Faulkner. It's true enough that he said some crazy things at his original trial, being under the undue influence of the cultic MOVE organization; but that group has never advocated initiation of violence, any more than had the Black Panthers, to whom Mumia's earlier affiliation the prosecution used to convince the jury to convict him.

Last but not least, Washburn claims that human beings have a "need" for retribution and catharsis. But in reality many survivors of murder victims oppose the death penalty, while many that supported it find that rather than giving them closure, it's only delayed the process of healing from their grief. It does survivors both a disservice and a dishonor to assume that imitating the violence of the killer, whether directly or through the agency of the state, will make them better.

We humans make ourselves better, rather, not by imitating the behavior of the lower animals, but by differentiating ourselves from it.

Eric Hamell

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